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Dr. Josef Olmert Headshot

Syria, a Year Later

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It was a year ago when the Syrian uprising started, much to the surprise of almost everybody. The surprise had to do with the fact, that the word "impossible" was commonly used when referring to Syria and its domestic problems, particularly to the possibility of any significant uprising, and for such an uprising to last for so long if ever erupting in the first place.

It was Bashar Assad himself who confidently stated to the Wall Street Journal on January 31, 2011, that "his" Syria was immune from the effects of the "Arab Spring". A year later, with at least 8,000 bodies in the streets, half a million refugees according to the Red Crescent report from today, immeasurable suffering and hatred, the "impossible" seems to be the reality of life in Syria. It is also out of touch to say, as many pundits already do, that the Alawite regime won the war, and the uprising is dying down. It isn't and is not likely to in the foreseeable future.

The Alawite special forces and militia are taking over some of the rebels strongholds, and are likely to take more in the very near future, but they are an army of foreign occupation in all these places. They are viewed as "the enemy" by the local population, and in order to change this state of affairs, the regime will have to do what even skilled butchers as Maher Assad and Assaf Shawkat cannot do: kill many more thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands.

What else can the regime do to pacify the millions of Sunnis who do not now and will not in the future accept its legitimacy? Political reforms, declared by the regime and "ratified" in a sham referendum are not going to work. The only reforms that stand a chance will be a power-sharing for a short transition period between the Assad regime and the opposition, leading to the complete demise of the Alawite elite; but this is not going to happen, no matter how many times the UN special envoy Kofi Anan will declare that the only solution is political. The recent discovery of email exchanges between Assad and his close confidants, as published by the Guardian, clearly shows that Bashar Assad refers to his own "reforms" as "rubbish". He knows why....

Throwing bones to the angry and hungry Syrians can't do the trick for the dictator any more, especially as his coffers are dwindling very quickly. What is left is bound to go to those who still kill, as they need their rewards, and outside help, including from Iran, is not going to make up for the damages inflicted on Syria by the sanctions, which are crippling the economy. The occupied population in Homs, Hamah, Idlib, Dara'a and any so many other places, which are under occupation by the Alawite minority, are not going to accept it. Therefore, the military occupation of large parts of Syria will have to continue for more than few weeks or even months. It is doubtful however that the Alawite community, whose loyalty to the regime has been near total until now, will be ready and capable of sustaining the current situation for too long. They still have the option of withdrawing to their mountainous homeland in northwest Syria and creating a de facto autonomy there.

The Iranian support for Assad, which was also dramatically exposed in the Guardian revelations, as if we needed this reminder, should not be taken for granted, as Iran itself is subjected to mounting pressures regarding its nuclear program, which seem to be on the rise. At a certain point in the not too distant future, the Iranians too will have to reevaluate cost and benefit of their support for Assad, while they need to prepare for a possible military strike and, even before that, paralyzing economic sanctions.

We are left with the Russian support for Assad, which is also not to be taken as a foregone conclusion. The Russians are fully aware of the fact that their support for the regime is very likely to ruin their relationships with many Arab states for years to come. So, they may want Assad to stay, but not at all costs. Cost, at least financially, is not something that deters Syria's adversaries in the Arab world, particularly the Saudis and Qatar. What Assad can't give to his population, they can give to the rebels -- a lot of money that can and will be used to buy arms for the rebel army. In the meantime, the Gulf states, as well as some western states, are closing their embassies in Damascus.

Do they know something that we do not? I, for one, do not know the answer, but it seems very logical to me that these countries do not believe that Assad is winning. In fact they may think that he is bound to lose. The odds are that even if it takes more time than previously anticipated, his defeat is going to happen, and there will not be a need to relate to the second anniversary to the uprising...